Ellen Langer

The Human Potential: From Mindlessness to Mindfulness, Part II

VTR Date: December 4, 1997

Guest: Langer, Ellen


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ellen Langer
Title: The Human Potential: From Mindlessness to Mindfulness, Part II
VTR: 12/4/97

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Dr. Ellen J. Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard, whose seminal researches and brilliant books on Mindfulness and The Power of Mindful Learning, both published by Addison Wesley, say so much about the human potential.

Well, last time, I tried to hitch a ride on Dr. Langer’s researches for the concept of an open mind. And I guess I should ask my guest if that was totally shameless on my part, in trying to ride the open mind onto your researches.

LANGER: [Laughter] No, on the contrary. I think that if one is interested in having an open mind, in spite of the fact that most of us again think that our minds are surely open, the way to do that is to be more mindful, which means to actively deal with novelty. And I think that when your mind is… You know, I don’t think that anybody would say that they want to have their mind closed. But most of the time, most of us are responding to the world with a closed mind, and we’re oblivious to it.

Now, when we’re given information, and we don’t stop to think about that information… And that happens, by the way, whenever the information is given by an authority, we have respect for that authority, when the information that’s given in language that’s absolute. So you just say, you know, “This is a cup.” You’re not going to argue it. And when the information is initially irrelevant to you. Under conditions like that, people don’t actively think about what they’re told; they just take it in. What happens is, when they take it in in that fashion, they become vulnerable to the substantive implications of that information. So if later they need to use that information in a different way, it won’t occur to them to. You know, that if I said to you, “People who have six fingers on one hand are stupid, they’re insomniacs, and they walk funny.” So how many people do you know with six fingers on one hand. Chances are you’re not going to think about it.


HEFFNER: But! Exactly. Exactly. So, let’s say three years from now you wake up and there you have a sixth finger on your hand, what will happen, the hypothesis says, is that you will be an insomniac, you’ll be stupid, and you’ll walk funny, whatever those things mean to you. Because it won’t occur to you to do otherwise.

HEFFNER: You’re really saying that’s what we do to ourselves.

LANGER: Yes. That when we’re taught by parents, by teachers, television, no matter where, newspapers, you’re given a fact, we accept that fact unquestioningly, then we become… we play out that fact without realizing we have other choices.

HEFFNER: Well then the key question, given the title of the most recent book, The Power of Mindful Learning, how do you incorporate these notions into the learning process?

LANGER: I think that there are two important things that we might do very differently. I think the first thing is for us to realize that information is situated, and that these absolute truths that we accept with great certainty are context-bound. So that there are very few, if any, pieces of information that are true no matter what the circumstances.

HEFFNER: No eternal verities?

LANGER: Okay. I don’t think so. But people usually say to me then something like, “Well, what about one plus one is two?” And I say that that depends on the particular number system. Or, more graphically, you know, a student told me this the other day: you add one wad of chewing gum to one wad of chewing gum, and what happens is you’ve got a wad of chewing gum; you don’t have two wads of chewing gum. All right? So that there are certainly conditions under which these things tend not to be true.

So what happens is, we want to learn these facts in such a way that you don’t become blind to the circumstances when they’re no longer true.

HEFFNER: What do you say though to those who are critical and say, to the contrary, probably the most difficult aspect of our contemporary society is that we are so situational, our ethics, everything has become situational, and the reason we don’t do as well as a society or as individuals is not because we are hide-bound; because we’re not bound enough?

LANGER: Yeah, well, I disagree. I think that…

HEFFNER: Nothing to that notion?

LANGER: Well, I mean [Laughter] there’s something to every notion. If I said nothing to it it would be mindless. Now, I think that people spend a lot of their time in this state of mindlessness. After the fact, it may be the case that some clever attorney might want to turn things inside out and show that the behavior made some sense. But I think, interestingly, without any evidence to this particular point, that when people behave mindfully you tend to get closer to spontaneous right action, that most of the things that people do that cause difficulty are things that are done because of their mindlessness, because they have mindlessly seen themselves as less than somebody else, so they want to take something away from the other person, they don’t realize there are several ways of dealing with a particular situation, so they do the, you know, they steal, they cheat, they lie, and so on. When one is behaving mindfully, one has available to them many options. And in those options usually there’s less need, I think, to behave in the egregious way.

HEFFNER: Of course, I’m tempted to ask you what makes you so certain about the value of uncertainty.

LANGER: Right. I think that…

HEFFNER: And you are certain.

LANGER: I’m not certain about anything. But I am confident that it’s a concept worth considering, that when I look at information and I say that things look different depending on how you look at it, that if we took our facts (this is the piece I was going to mention before; thank you for bringing me back to it) that if we took our facts and added names to it (this will become clearer in a minute), what would happen is that, I think, the uncertainty endemic to this fact would become better known.

For example: When you say “Smoking is bad for your health,” this is god-determined? Or we say that “Peter Goldsmith, who did research on this particular occasion with these particular people in this particular city, has found that smoking is harmful to your health,” or “The Congress, that consisted of these particular people at this particular time, have decreed that,” you know, as soon as you have people attached, then you realize, well, there are other people… Smoking is a bad example. I should have taken..

HEFFNER: Because of your prejudices.

LANGER: Well, no, actually because of the prejudices of most viewers that there’s data that smoking can increase one’s acumen and, at least in certain circumstances, make people appear smarter. But I don’t want to praise smoking or…

HEFFNER: It’s only in the movies. Only in the movies.

LANGER: [Laughter] Yes. So let me just, let’s say that, oh, you’re taught in school, here are the three reasons for the Civil War. Now, what I did when I was a student, I was a wonderful student, I memorized that. I just took any information, even the information that was under the pictures, because I was so neurotic, and I learned it to be able to spit it back in an exam. I didn’t spend time thinking about the information or enjoying the information because there was nothing much to think about. This was the truth. The unconditional, non-context-bound truth. “Here are three reasons for the Civil War.” Well, I suggest instead that if we taught people that “Here are the three reasons for the Civil War from the perspective of a 50-year-old white in 1870 in Mississippi,” that as soon as you say that, all of a sudden you think, “Well, what would a 20-year-old black in Mississippi think? What about a white or a black or an Asian or what have you in Europe in 1990,” you know, and so on. And what do you think? You know, that your perspective somehow becomes viable. So that you understand that information changes depending on perspective. And that’s interesting. Then what you want to do is stay tuned, because you can never be sure that you understand it completely, because there’s always some other perspective from which the information might look different. So life becomes more exciting. Information becomes more exciting.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but you’re not in the business of excitement; you obviously feel something enormously important happens when you’re that open-minded.

LANGER: Oh, yes. Yes. But I am in the business of excitement. I think that, you know, it’s interesting that, for something to be enjoyable doesn’t make it less scholarly. And I am in the business of pursuing useful truths that are situated. But it’s interesting that in the pursuit of this information I find that mindfulness turns out to be enjoyable.

HEFFNER: Now suppose I say, “Now let’s take a case history. Take Ellen Langer. Look, she’s bright, she’s lively, she’s done so much of this good work, all requiring that quality of open-mindness, of mindfulness.” But obviously, to be able to do that, you need to have a background, a past, in which you were looking, learning by rote the lettering under the pictures, as you put it.

LANGER: [Laughter] Well, I mean, we can’t use me as an experiment now because I’ve already memorized things and played the game in that fashion. But we can and have done experiments that are reported in The Power of Mindful Learning where we have people learn material without that kind of rote memory, and they enjoy what they’re doing more, and they do better. The papers they write are more creative.

No, I think that what you want is to certainly become familiar with tasks, familiar with facts as other people have either performed the task or have seen these situations; but you want not to lock yourself in so that if there’s another way of doing it, you’re not going to see it.

It also, it’s interesting that we end up very evaluative of each other because of this mindlessness. That if I behave in a way that, I assume that my behavior is correct or else I wouldn’t do it. So that if you behave differently from me, and I have this rigid notion about right and wrong, you become wrong, rather than realizing that your behavior may make sense from a very different perspective.

HEFFNER: You know, I try to talk to my students about associative thinking as opposed to stereotypical thinking. And I just wondered whether, in your total rejection of mindlessness — and I’m going to say “total rejection” —

LANGER: [Laughter] Okay, yes, and I will accept that, yes.

HEFFNER: That you don’t make it less possible for us to — it’s the same question I’ve been asking you — to incorporate whatever value there may be in having pegs, marks along the way, that if not immutable, at least are there.

LANGER: No, no. No. It’s fine. If they’re not immutable, then it’s fine. You know, that you can say, “Most people most of the time do it this way, so I’m going to learn it.” But that’s still different from saying, “This is the way to do it.” What we’ve done, in some experiments, we take textbooks, and we simply change it from the absolute way they’re written to conditionalizing them. So it would say, “From one perspective,” or “It would seem that,” “It could be,” “Maybe,” rather than “It is.” People study it, versus study the typical textbooks, and what happens is they do just as well on exact facts. However, when we ask them to creatively use the information, those people who were given the mindful textbooks who are encouraged to see that, well, yes, it’s generally true, and that means that there are times that it’s more or less true, they were able to use that information far more creatively.

HEFFNER: Let me ask about that. To what degree are students in contemporary life unwilling to, or find it difficult to accept or to deal with that kind of conditional teaching?

LANGER: Oh, yeah. Oh, no. I think that conditional teaching is far more fun. Conditional learning is far more fun. This mindful learning is more fun. I think that students probably, if they’ve been taught for X-number of years of their school life that to pass the test you have to memorize, then chances are, when they’re going to take a test, those who want their A’s are going to be afraid not to memorize.

What we did was some studies where people didn’t know they were going to be tested, and we had some groups memorizing, and some groups just making it meaningful. And the groups again that made it meaningful outperformed the other groups, the memorizing groups.

You know, if you watch children, or adults, and you see kids who are listening to a song that they like, they don’t go home and repeat it over and over and over again in some dry way that’s difficult for them, but yet they come to learn all sorts of things about the music, things that are interesting. In fact, if you were a hamburger-eater, and you were weight conscious, and I told you, “You know, Dusty’s Burgers, the number-one burger out there? That hamburger is 2,320 calories,” you’re not going to go home and memorize that: 2,320 calories. But you’re going to know it. Why? Because it matters to you.

And so we find that when people are actively drawing these distinctions, which is mindfully engaging the material, so they choose distinctions that matter to them, they’re more likely to remember.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, what matters to me — and you’ll understand this — are the things you report about aging. And we’ve talked about it. But I was fascinated by, I mean, one of the things all of us old fogeys are concerned about is memory. And I was fascinated by this bit in The Power of Mindful Learning: “Most of us see memorizing as effortful and feel that learning too many facts can overload or clutter our minds.” You tell this anecdote: “One middle-aged woman, faced with remembering nine-digit zip codes and streams of digits in long-distance dialing was overheard telling a friend that she was going to give up state capitols to make room.” Which raises the question for me: Do you have to make room in memory?

LANGER: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think that most discussions of limits lead us to be more limited than we would otherwise be. And that… Limited in terms of the amount of room for memory, the speed with which we can, or how quickly we can run a mile. No matter what the limit is that people impose on our understanding of…

HEFFNER: Do you want to eliminate the word “limit” from our vocabularies?

LANGER: Well, I want to soften it. I want it to be understood that what it means is where we’ve come to at this point, and given all that we know, this is as far as we’ve been able to go. That’s very different from saying we can go no further. That we have to assume in principle that there are going to be things we know tomorrow that we don’t know today, that there are things that we are going to be able to do tomorrow that we can’t do today. And all of those things that today they’re going to seem impossible to us. And I think that when we take our facts in an unsituated way, we take them in mindlessly, it leads us to be less future-looking, to be less problem-solving in novel ways, because, after all, this is the way it is. Well, this is the way it is only because that’s been the way it’s been, not because it has to be that way, whatever the target is. I don’t know, is that too vague?

HEFFNER: No, no, no. It takes us back to my friend Max Lerner’s notion that he was a possibleist. And you like that.

LANGER: And I too am a possibleist. Yes, I like that.

HEFFNER: And you like that.

To what degree have you focused on people who are aging?

LANGER: Most of my early work was done with elderly populations. And it’s a group where the study of mindlessness and mindfulness is most dramatic in that, for all of the health effects, we have people who are very old, and we give them these mindfulness treatments, and they live longer, or we don’t, and they die prematurely. And so you can take the ultimate measure. And the ultimate dependent measure is measure of longevity. And so that led to many studies in the area of health for me.

Then, elderly populations are people who have done what they’ve done for a long time. And so, many of them then are going to think that that is the way you do it, and become locked in. We have lots of mindsets about what it means to be older. And when we blindly follow those mindsets, again we end up living lives that are less exciting. So, for example…

The argument that I’m making, although I haven’t made it in the book in this way, is that we look at what is, very often then people decide that’s what has to be, we create theories that are hard to get out of that say that’s the way it has to be, and many of those “has to be’s” don’t have to be, according to the research that I’ve done. For example, many of the memory losses that older people suffer, I think, are in part environmentally determined. For example, you are given fewer reminders when you’re older. You know, when I was 25 years old and an up-and-coming, and it was important that I learned everybody’s name, because I didn’t know whether it was going to be useful to me or whatever, at this point now I don’t struggle with that. It’s, you know, if there’s somebody, a student, an important person that I’m going to meet, if I need to know their name, over time I’ll come to know their name. What that means is that I’ll meet a lot of people, and I won’t know their names. Now, when later I try to recall their name, I’m not going to have their name available. But it’s not because I’ve forgotten it; it’s because I didn’t encode it in the first place. So what I’m suggesting is that some of the memory loss that people experience has nothing to do with memory. That situationally they don’t take it in, later they’re not going to have it available.

HEFFNER: Does it have to do too with the state capitols?

LANGER: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I mean, one thing you can sacrifice. I mean, do you think there’s…

LANGER: I think if you need to make room that’s a good thing to get rid of. But again I go back to, I think there’s plenty of room there. I’ve not seen any evidence that suggests that you need to move information out to make room for new information. I mean, just sort of think of the number of things that we know about at any moment, even the most limited of us has available to them millions of facts about themselves, their friends, the world around them.

HEFFNER: No, but the question is: millions more. Whether we accept the notion that there isn’t really that much more room, not Ay de mi, there isn’t that much more room, but there isn’t that much more room, so don’t both with this or that. You don’t?

LANGER: I don’t see any evidence. If you think about it, Dick, and you say that, let’s for argument say that a person has an average of four billion facts available to them, okay, that they can call upon. It can be mud, dealing with mud, it can be mud to sand, I mean, if we say, dust, in one domain. We can generate, okay, so we’ll say, let’s be more conservative, we’ll say one million facts. Now, as you get older, probably you are choosing more of what you want to learn in the world. So there probably aren’t another million facts you’re going to desire. But if you’re talking about a limit, you’re saying that, “I already have a million facts, and today I’m not going to be able to put another five or six in.” I mean, it’s hard for me to make sense out of the metaphor.

HEFFNER: Because you’re so young. You haven’t reached the point…

LANGER: That may be it. That may be it. But to go back to memory itself, not talking about limits, I think, you know, again, what I was saying is that much of what masquerades as memory loss isn’t memory loss; it’s a lack of encoding, a lack of being reminded. And I had an interesting thought, I think, and then wrote about it with some data in The Power of Mindful Learning about an advantage of forgetting. An advantage of forgetting is that then you have to be situated in the present, where all of us seem to want to be anyway. So that if I, if you think of memory as knowledge with complete certainty, when you have knowledge with complete certainty you don’t need to pay any attention to the target of your attention. So in some sense if you and I were close friends — which I hope we become close friends —

HEFFNER: We’re going to go dancing.

LANGER: We’re going to go dancing. [Laughter] The cha-cha, as I recall.


LANGER: That if I am sure that I know exactly what you’re going to do, what you’re going to say, what it’s going to mean, that I remember all of this from the past, last time that we interacted, I don’t have to pay any attention to you. That’s not going to be good for you, it’s not going to facilitate anything positive in our interaction. You can see that if I don’t remember exactly what you think of or feel about this or that, then I pay more attention to you and I allow you, almost encourage you implicitly to change and grow. You know, if that’s the way you were then doesn’t mean that’s the way you have to be right now.

I think that’s the advantage of new relationships. You know, that in a new relationship you start off assuming that you don’t know all about this person you want to know; in a relationship that’s gone on for 30 years, many people think they do know, they don’t pay any attention. And what I’m suggesting is that mindfulness is more likely to take place if there’s a presumption of uncertainty, of not knowing. Okay, so when you don’t know, you pay attention.

HEFFNER: So it’s a plus.

LANGER: Yeah. And to go back to forgetting, which is where we started with this, that if you think you don’t know, if you’ve forgotten, then you’re going to think you don’t know. That will also keep you attentive. And if you’ve learned it mindfully, then you can both remember and stay tuned in.

HEFFNER: Let me ask — we just have two minutes, two-and-a-half minutes left — to what degree are the results of your researches being incorporated into our school system, into our homes for the aged, etcetera.

LANGER: I think that some of the work, the older work, has had an opportunity to actually be influential. And I think that, especially for ways of dealing with older populations. The newer work, it’s hard to know the influence. You know, when things change it’s hard to know whether it had anything to do with any particular individual or not. But I believe that this will have influence on the way we learn. Some of the understandings that I talk about, the myths that I have of learning — and this is whether you’re learning a sport, learning how to, any how-to, not just an academic subject — that our behavior, if we continue to learn the way we’ve learned how to learn, we’re only going to be mediocre. We’re going to continue to see learning as difficult. And I think that it will have an influence because learning shouldn’t be difficult, and isn’t difficult. The difficulty is when it’s done mindlessly. So what I’m suggesting is that when people see the ease and the opportunities that follow from this mindful learning it will maintain itself and increase enormously person across…

HEFFNER: Well, you say “will,” and I’m really asking a question…

LANGER: And I, you know, and I can’t answer that. I would like to think, as everybody else would, that what they do makes a difference, a discernible difference. I don’t think that…

HEFFNER: You make an effort from your academic position to…

LANGER: Yes, oh, no, no, I definitely am out there in the world, not just on programs of this sort, but lecturing in different places, to make a difference. But I don’t know how one can assess whether the difference was made because of this particular show, this particular effort, or an… It’s usually, I believe, not just an accumulative effort on an individual’s part, but on like-minded individuals. Society does change.

HEFFNER: But I was thinking of specific things that you try to do.

LANGER: You want me to say that, yes, that I went into speak to…

HEFFNER: I want you to do it.

LANGER: No, I’d be happy to. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: I mean, the teachers who teach teachers.

LANGER: Yeah. And I’ve been lecturing to teachers lately. And yes, no, I think that the work is, it means a great deal to me…

HEFFNER: Clearly.

LANGER: …because I think that people hurt themselves unwittingly, that the changes are neither expensive nor difficult, so it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t be engaged. And yes, so I will do what I can to make the changes.

HEFFNER: To get us all off automatic pilot?

LANGER: Right, right.

HEFFNER: That’s it.

Ellen Langer, thank you so much for joining me again today on The Open Mind.

LANGER: Thank you for having me, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.